1st September 2006
News from Alex Mason – BV Project Coordinator:
We’re into week three of the expedition here in Andavadoaka. The open water and advanced dive courses have finished, nearly everyone is benthic enabled and volunteers are starting to learn the 150-odd fish species that they need to be able to identify in order to carry out fish belt transects on the reefs. Volunteers and staff have also been whale watching, octopus gleaning, sailing pirogues, playing football against the village, stuffing themselves with lobster at Manga Lodge, snorkeling on the northern beaches, teaching English to children in the village, dancing in the epi-bars, making musical instruments and playing Canadian ‘soccer baseball’ under the instruction of Ashley and Alan. Oh, and a group of divers got circled yesterday on Andravameiki at a distance of about five metres by a hungry-looking three-metre marlin.
We’ve also been doing a lot of exploratory diving up and down the coast as work on the marine protected area gathers pace. Villages from Bevato in the north to Tampolove in the south have suggested various reef sites as potential permanent no-take-zones, and Blue Ventures staff and volunteers have therefore been out diving them to carry out preliminary assessments of their ecological value. This typically involves us heading up the coast in the boats to some fairly distant island that we don’t usually survey, picking up some presidents from the nearest village and then getting them to take us out to the reef in question. We then chug backwards and forwards pointing a depth sounder over the side while the village elders squint at distant landmarks and try to line them up with each other. When they are happy that we are on the site in question, we take a GPS point, put on our scuba gear and then drop down to take a look.
In some cases we find nothing but sand, or an uninteresting stretch of rubbly bottom. But the last few sites we’ve dived have been quite interesting: the first, near Bevato, was a pretty cold and bleak wasteland at around 18 metres down (and has thus earned the name Hoth), but had an interesting collection of sponges and a wide diversity of fish; the second, near Lamboara, was a small hill rising off the bottom with a rocky patch reef on top and thousands of juvenile fish swarming around the lower slopes (we have dubbed it Fraggle Rock); and the third was a pretty little patch reef with good hard coral cover just to one side of the channel that leads to the Baie d’Assassins (name still pending but “Endor” and “Rivendell” are strong contenders. “Atlantis” is also on the table but some think that this should be held in reserve for when we find a grander site with towering columns, vast caves and spreading arches).
Having done a preliminary survey of these sites, the next step is to go back and make comprehensive maps, and to gather detailed scientific data on the fish and benthic assemblages they contain. Only then will we be able to advise the villages effectively on where the boundaries of the reserves should lie, the rules applicable within and outside them and the value of the reserves as components of the overall marine protected area. Over time we will also need to set up survey routines for some of them, in order to monitor changes over time following their closure to fishing activity.
Anyway enough from me – time to hear from some volunteers. First a blog entry from our resident primary school teacher, Catherine Farrow:
I’ve been in Andavadoaka for a week now and I have already lost track of what day it is.
I had planned to make my journey to Toliara alone, and re-read my information like the good girl that I am, but as soon as I opened my Padi Advanced Open Water book in Paris I was approached by a smiling Scott asking if I was with Blue Ventures. With that a young man from Oxford and before long there was a small group of us chatting easily about where we had been before and anticipating what we were about to let ourselves in for!
We arrived safely at Toliara airport together (minus a few bags – make sure that you check your luggage in again yourself at Charles de Gaul – even if you are told that you don’t need to!).
We arrived at Chez La La and were met by very chilled out, tanned people who were leaving from the last expedition. They showed us around Toliara and armed us with the essential information of the town – i.e. different banks take different travellers cheques, pay in Ariary – it’s cheaper than Euros, always wear shoes on the beach – it’s the local public toilet etc.
Three of us were guided to the local market to buy some very stylish 80p pants, shorts and t-shirts in case our luggage was never to be seen again and we held a Tulear style fashion show in the bar of Chez La La, which proved to be quite interesting. The locals at the market were very friendly and happy to talk with us and laugh at my exceedingly dodgy French – somewhat bemused I think by 10 Vazaha (foreigners) walking in and requesting all of their stocks of Nutella, Tomato sauce, jam, Pringles; basically anything with taste and that is recognisable, to supplement the diet of fish and rice!
The boat journey here was very interesting – I had given up all hope of getting my bags at this stage and so armed with one change of clothes and enough food to feed a small army I joined the trudge out through the pooey beach in flip-flops at one in the morning! Trying to sleep on life jackets and foam in our 22 hour journey was almost impossible but for sheer experience I would not change a minute of it! Holding up sarongs while your newly found friends get stage fright trying to pee off the back of a boat, trying to avoid the sails knocking you out whilst alerting your peeing companion of interesting sightings e.g. humpback whales, Pringles, or tourists on speedboats with cameras!
I was pleasantly surprised by the huts when I arrived as I was expecting to be uncomfortable. The rooms, though small and very basic, have comfortable beds which I have enjoyed collapsing into after a busy day!
The diving here has been amazing, and it is all the more enjoyable as you begin to learn more about what you are looking at. The coral reefs are incredible and there is a huge variety of fish and aquatic life to see. The instructors and staff all work very hard in not ideal circumstances – get ready for sand to appear absolutely everywhere!! It’s a good idea to bring your own scuba diving equipment as there are a lot of people using equipment regularly and it ensures you have what you need clean and ready to go.
The staff are dedicated to what they are doing as well as being calm, patient and in control when necessary and are friendly and a good laugh. They have been very helpful to me to speed up my science learning as I only have a limited time here ( 3 weeks is not enough!)
Between learning Benthic and diving it has been great to go over to Nosy Hao island to watch for whales and dolphins – they put on a real show for us and are really the most graceful creatures to watch. I recommend finishing that off with a gentle pirogue ride home watching the flying fish – a very relaxing peaceful moment I will remember forever.
The peace was, however, soon shattered by the regular football match between Blue Ventures and the village – a friendly match we were to learn only when the locals draw or win!” This was a great opportunity to interact with the locals and as fast and determined to win as they are, the international language of football had us all laughing and shaking hands at the final whistle.
I have also enjoyed the opportunity to teach/entertain the children in the local school – their enthusiasm for learning the word flip-flop will amuse me for some time, as will the image of one of the volunteers energetically singing ring a ring a roses and accidentally fishing in goat droppings!
As you can see I have had a very busy yet rewarding week and I am very much looking forward to the rest of my time here and really getting stuck into the project. I only wish I had longer!
And now something from another volunteer Claire Gauci:
Well we’re just starting our second week after a hectic first. I met the other members in Toliara after a 20hr taxi brousse ride down from Tana, which was tightly packed to say the least, but the children seemed to find the strange white person highly amusing. From Tulear we got a boutre (wooden sailing boat with no engine or toilet which meant walking out at low tide through sludge in the middle of the night. The trip took about 22hrs and was obviously totally wind-dependent. The most incredible part was when we were joined by humpback whales breaching close to the boat – completely surreal!
Diving so far has been great and today I took part in an exploratory dive in preparation for the MPA. So I can now say that I’ve dived somewhere that nobody has ever dived before! Having passed first my computer benthic test and then my in-water one I now recognise a lot of the wonderful things that I see down there, which is a really great feeling. After diving one day we were invited to watch a special ceremony in one of the villages and they actually came out singing and dancing to welcome us! On the way back we walked through the spiny forest and the baobabs as the day turned to dusk.
Being a vegetarian (who doesn’t eat fish) I have to admit I was a little bit concerned about what exactly I would be eating, but the food here is definitely much better than I’d expected. Having a great time so far and since I’m staying for 2 expeditions I’ve got a lot left to look forward to.